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Postcard From GDC 2005: Akira Yamaoka on Silent Hill, Fear, and Audio For Games

At the 2005 GDC game design track, Silent Hill's producer and sound director Akira Yamaoka gave an overview of the design process behind the cult horror game series, while exploring the design and audio issues found in the terror and survival horror genre.

Akira Yamaoka

At this year's GDC game design track, Silent Hill's producer and sound director Akira Yamaoka gave an overview of the design process behind the cult horror game series, while exploring the design and audio issues found in the terror and survival horror genre.

Yamaoka began his speech by examining the horror genre both in Japan and the U.S. Being totally different cultures, each has a unique way of representing fear in media such as movies and video games. According to Yamaoka, the U.S. perception of fear is usually linked to violence, whereas in Japan, fear is usually conveyed through sad, lonely stories.

This difference affects the embodiment of horror also, with American tradition focusing more on scary creatures and monsters, while Japan tends to favor invisible enemies that very seldom appear on the screen. Finally, the look of horror is also different, with U.S. audiences preferring shocking moments and images, while Japanese horror fans prefer empty spaces, and shadows of things past. Yamaoka then explained how Silent Hill was actually designed to be Hollywood-style horror title but, due to the development team being Japanese, many elements of Japanese-style horror permeated into the end product and thus a unique blend emerged as a result.

In quite an intriguing way, Yamaoka then went on to analyze the tricks and tools the design team uses to convey the sense of horror and unease to the gamer. It was a true voyage of discovery to our primal fears, as Yamaoka explained the mind tricks used by Silent Hill's designers. As a starting point, he elaborated about how the story should be constructed. For fear to arise, stories need to be fragmented, so key information to the player is deliberately omitted from the narration. In all Silent Hill games, the story is only partly revealed, often defying the laws of logic. This way, the curiosity of gamers makes them "fill in the gaps" with their own theories and intuitions. As they advance in the game and true horror is progressively revealed, the true story leaves them with a sensation of discomfort, caused by not knowing what is actually going on until it is usually too late.

Another tool of the trade explained during the talk directly implied playing with the human psyche to make us feel uncomfortable. In a very illustrative example, Yamaoka explained how gamers facing a T-junction in a path in the dark would statistically prefer going to the left as this makes us feel safer than heading right. The same principle is applied to roller coaster design. So, using research from psychologists seems to be a good supply of information on how to make people feel scared. For example, using empty spaces, or simply spaces that used to be full of life and are now lifeless seemed to be a recipe for success in the horror genre according to Yamaoka.

As another example of his tools, Yamaoka went on to detail how the Silent Hill team chose to deliberately not use music as an emotional cue to cause unease. In movies and traditional video games, the music gives us the cue of how we should be feeling at each moment: in a love sequence a romantic tune will give the cue to our brain to feel emotion, in a scary movie a dissonant music will warn the brain of the shocking moments, and so on. In Silent Hill, music is almost suppressed for this kind of emotional cueing, to make the player feel stripped down and naked, and thus help the developers introduce surprises at unexpected moments. So, music is more useful as atmosphere than it is as emotional guide. The only emotional cue would be through the humming static sound of a radio the main character is carrying: higher volume means there's enemies closer, but that's about it.

Being a quite realistic-looking game, Yamaoka went on to distinguish realism of reality in the context of survival horror games. The key here would be to leverage a highly realistic environment, in the sense that it is accurate in its display, with a surreal world that defies the laws of reality. This proves to be a more intense terror experience, as the realistic looks and familiarity makes the horror more direct and personal. Many people do not feel afraid of fantasy settings, but most will be scared at a familiar, everyday setting where true horror is revealed.


Yamaoka's Silent Hill 4: The Room

For the last portion of his talk, Yamaoka focused on sharing his thoughts about what the next generation hardware may hold for games like Silent Hill. In this respect, his main interest was not so much on technologies, but on ways to enhance immersion and story telling. As an ambitious example, he commented he was waiting for the day when a metaphor is possible on a video game screen. In traditional story telling, we can write something like "her skin was white as snow", giving the reader a poetic yet graphic description of a person's skin. Still, as much as computer games are realistic today, displaying narrative constructs like a metaphor in a meaningful way is still some years down the road.

Being an audio professional by training (in fact, Yamaoka created most of the audio for all the Silent Hill series, and is an industrial music aficionado), he elaborated on how next-gen hardware may improve the audio experience, and how that may benefit the overall experience as a whole. The same way a rock concert has a visual and a sonic component, Yamaoka defended the use of sound as a synergy with the visuals and the gameplay, so the sum is greater than its parts. In his opinion, new systems like 5.1 or even 7.1 audio show great potential for atmosphere-rich games like Silent Hill.

Overall, Akira Yamaoka provided a gentle, but rich in ideas introduction to the mechanisms of horror, and how they are used in the Silent Hill series. As an anecdote, Silent Hill fans will be happy to learn that Yamaoka will soon have a different media to explore those mechanisms, as he recognized a Silent Hill movie is in the works, to follow the structure and defining elements of the game and bring them to the silver screen.

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